Randall Duchesneau, a 21-year-old student at Cornell University, was using a Tumbl Trak™ gymnastics tumbling training apparatus when he attempted to perform a standing back flip. Landing squarely in the center of the apparatus, Duchesneau suffered catastrophic, permanent spinal injuries, rendering him a quadriplegic. As a result of his accident, Duchesneau sued Tumbl Trak, claiming products liability - specifically, that the company failed to warn of the dangers associated with the product - and Cornell, claiming negligent supervision of this allegedly dangerous product.

In seeking to have the case, Randall Duchesneau v. Cornell University et al. [2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412], dismissed, Tumbl Trak argued that Duchesneau could not establish a case of failure to warn where 1) the risk of injury was open and obvious, and 2) the plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the apparatus. In rejecting Tumbl Trak's argument, the court conceded that failure-to-warn claims can be decided against an injured party where the injured party was fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation or common sense, or where the hazard was patently dangerous. However, there were significant questions as to which, if any, hazards associated with the apparatus were open and obvious (that is, could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly situated novice gymnast. In addition, the court found numerous deficiencies in the warning labels on the apparatus: the labels were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the labels were located on either end of the apparatus, but not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the labels were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips.

The court also noted that assumption of risk is frequently decisive (against the plaintiff) in cases arising out of participation in sporting events, with these cases having a unifying theme - clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. However, in Duchesneau's case, there was a question of whether Duchesneau actually was unaware of the risk, or whether the defendant's negligence amplified the risk. For this reason, the court ruled that the case must go to trial.

Tumbl Trak may still be able to win at trial. It's clear, though, that the company could have saved itself a lot of trouble if it had only provided better warning labels on the apparatus. Warning labels should be easy to read, should be located where users can see them and should tell of the dangers of using the product - and not temper the seriousness of the warning with cartoons.

As for Cornell, or any other operator of recreation facilities, the case demonstrates that you cannot simply purchase recreational equipment and leave it out for anyone to use. As a facility operator, you have a duty to provide a safe environment and to ensure that all equipment is safe and in working order. If an apparatus appears to be potentially dangerous, even if used properly, the facility has a duty to make sure that the equipment is only used under supervision. Failing to provide the proper supervision, as Cornell is discovering, can open the facility up to a costly lawsuit.